Ads make the Internet worse

I have a sneaking suspicion that when future generations look back on the era from the mid-1990s to some time in our not-too-distant future, they will be struck by how much our culture was dominated by advertising, and how ineffective it all was despite its ubiquity.

For as long as there have been businesses, there has been a need to, at the very least, let people know you have something to sell. There was also always an incentive to convince people to buy your product rather than a competitor’s. But to me, advertising didn’t really become the cultural juggernaut that it is until the twentieth century, when new forms of mass media arrived that were unable to survive without it. There had been newspaper ads before then, of course, but they were more of a supplemental revenue stream; you still, as a general rule, had to pay for newspapers and magazines. But radio and television were indiscriminate in their reach. Anyone with the proper receiver could consume any broadcast content, and there was no way to bill them for all and only the programs they consumed. There wasn’t even a reliable way to know which programs they consumed. So in order to make money, radio and TV stations had to give their content away for free, but charge businesses money to air their marketing messages. This made advertising virtually inescapable.

The early Internet was mostly (though not entirely) ad-free, consisting as it did mainly of academic, government, and military institutions. There was plenty of non-official content, but it mostly consisted of personal home pages of people who had academic accounts. They essentially got their hosting for free, and weren’t trying to monetize their content; they were just sharing things they thought were interesting. Once private businesses became more prevalent on the Internet in the late 1990s, things began to change. Many company websites essentially were ads: they existed just to share information about the company’s products.1 But there were also Internet-based publications (or Internet versions of print publications), and they needed to make a buck somehow. Some publications were “paywalled,” in that their content could not be accessed without a login, for which users would purchase subscriptions. But at a time when many Internet users were used to people sharing things for free on their homepages, paywalls were unpopular. People wanted frictionless access to unlimited content, and the only way to provide that was through ads.

At first, it seemed that the Internet was a utopia for advertisers, because for the first time it offered them reliable information about how well their ads were working. The retail pioneer John Wanamaker is often quoted as saying that “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.” But now, you could know exactly which half was wasted! Just track which ads get clicked on, and you’ll have a pretty good idea which sites’ audiences are more receptive to your ads. Eventually, sites like Google, which was fast becoming the “front door” of the Internet, realized that it was silly to show the same ad to everyone who visits a page. If you know the types of things each user searches for, why not show each user just the ads that they might be most interested in?

I don’t need to go into how the desire for more personalized advertising led directly to the explosion of surveillance culture and the erosion of any semblance of online privacy. Many people have written many words on how corporate surveillance is ruining the Internet, and there’s a whole cottage industry devoted to keeping companies from tracking you online. What I do want to point out is how completely and utterly ineffective all that surveillance is.

Consider this: I have been using Google products every day since 2001. I switched to Google Search from AltaVista the minute I realized how much better its search results were, and it has been my primary search engine ever since.2 I’ve used Gmail as my primary email since the days when you needed an invite to get an account. I’ve both consumed and produced videos on YouTube since before Google bought them (and used the competing Google Videos as well until it was merged into YouTube). Until just a few years ago, I used Android phones exclusively, and even now that I’ve moved to iPhone, I still use a lot of Google apps. Google has been collecting my data for more than twenty years, and must have a dossier on me that rivals anything the CIA or KGB ever collected on anyone at the height of the Cold War. They ought to be able to predict what I want to buy before I even know it myself, and funnel me a torrent of ultra-personalized ads that I can’t help but click on like a rat zapping its pleasure center.

And yet… they don’t. The Google ads directed at me are pure and utter shit. YouTube allows you to toggle whether or not to receive personalized ads, and I’ve often joked that with personalized ads turned off, I see the same ads twenty times a day for products I would never buy, and with personalized ads turned on, I see the same ads twenty times a day for products I’ve already bought. As for ads on Google Searches, or the AdSense ads that Google places on other websites I visit, I’ve trained myself to tune them out entirely. On the off chance that I actually notice such ads, I’m almost never the least bit interested in buying what they’re selling.

Meta are a little bit more effective at targeted advertising, because they’re far more devious: the infamous “Meta pixel” is silently embedded into every website that has a “share on Facebook / Instagram” button, which is damned near all of them, and Meta have been found to be keeping detailed profiles on people who don’t even have accounts with them. If you use the Internet at all, and don’t have all sorts of blockers in place, Meta is collecting data on you, and probably knows who you are even across different browsers, devices, and IP addresses. As a result, Instagram is pretty much the only place I ever see ads for things I want to buy. But I rarely actually buy them, especially since the products tend to be, on closer inspection, garbage. It’s not at all uncommon to see ads hawking prints or T-shirts featuring art scraped from the Web, without the knowledge, consent, or remuneration of the artist. These ads tend to be from accounts with names like “moojeefa43,” because moojeefa1-42 have already been banned from Instagram for copyright infringement and they just keep creating new accounts. (It doesn’t help that it’s very difficult to report these ads in the first place; only the copyright owner can report intellectual property infringement, and most of these accounts turn off comments so you can’t tag the owners.) Those ads that aren’t outright scams are often for expensive rebrandings of cheaply-made garbage, and I’ve found that when I see a product that interests me, a little searching often turns up an identical product, quite possibly from the exact same Chinese or Indonesian sweatshop that made the advertised product, but much less expensive. So clicking on an Instagram ad, and actually buying something from the site it takes me to, is an exceedingly rare experience for me.

I realize that I’m not the typical Internet user. There are quite a lot of people who just don’t care that they’re being tracked, don’t mind clicking on ads, and will buy a product they want from the first site they see without comparison shopping. And I’m sure such knee-jerk consumers are why corporate surveillance and ad-supported content still exist. But I seriously doubt that the money made off of such purchases justify the expense poured into crafting such elaborate surveillance techniques and paying for ad space.

We haven’t even gotten to one of the most insidious results of the Age of Advertising: clickbait. Whenever you search for something now, the top results are very likely to be garbage sites that were hoisted to the top spots through the dark alchemy of SEO, and which feature an explosion of popups and ads that cover the actual content (such as it is). I’m sure these pages generate a ton of clicks, but almost all of these are accidental clicks caused by Javascript-animated ads that lurch like zombies to position themselves on top of whatever link you were actually trying to click on. I would be flabbergasted to learn that even one hundredth of a percent of the visits to such clickbait sites result in the actual purchase of a product. But the sites can prove they get a ton of ad clicks, and the companies are willing to shell out money to advertise there because they labor under the mistaken belief that ad clicks equal revenue. And with the advent of LLMs, these sites will only multiply, because you can generate a million SEO-optimized landfills of misinformation for far less than it costs to hire already underpaid human writers.

So the Internet needs advertising to survive, and ads have made the Internet worse. What’s the endgame?

One obvious possibility is that ad-chasing comment farms make the Internet so bad that nobody wants to use it anymore, which lowers click rates and finally causes companies to stop paying for ads. The Internet eventually shuts down entirely, and people go back to watching television and writing letters and whatever they used to do in the Before Times. Sounds idyllic, but I don’t think it’s very likely.

Much more likely is the increase of walled gardens, which we’re already seeing. Many websites now have “freemium” models, where you can consume content for free with a ton of ads, or pay to have the ads removed. Most music streaming services work this way, as do many TV streaming services, as well as YouTube. And I get the distinct impression that the owners of these sites know exactly what’s happening. They know that Internet advertising doesn’t really work very well, and that people hate to see ads. So they sprinkle ads everywhere and then offer to make your Internet browsing experience less shitty for a monthly subscription fee. This is especially transparent in the case of YouTube. I genuinely believe that YouTube could replace all their ads with pictures of infected livers set to music by the Plastic Ono Band played at one-third speed and not see any difference in their finances, because the ads aren’t there to sell products: they’re there to make the experience bad enough that you pay for YouTube Premium. That’s why ads pop up at random times in the video, often mid-sentence, instead of at logical breakpoints. That’s why you’ll never see ads for anything you’d actually want to buy. That’s why they have a “skip ad” button that appears after a few seconds, so you can avoid hearing the sales pitch but still have your train of thought broken by the necessity of clicking. That’s why, if you opt for targeted advertising, they let you block an ad, but it only blocks that ad, not other ads by the same advertiser. (Come on: do they really think that you definitely want to see more ads for NordVPN or Kesimpta, but just have aesthetic concerns about that particular ad?) None of these decisions on YouTube’s part make much sense if they wanted you to click on more ads, but they make perfect sense if they want you to pay to make the shitty ads go away.

So I think the endgame here is a two-tiered Internet: a street level, consisting of ad-infested slums and low-quality, AI-generated “content”; and a high-rise level consisting of stuff you actually want to see but have to pay a subscription fee for. In effect, we will be right back where we were in the heyday of commercial BBSs like CompuServe, before the Internet proper was widely accessible outside of government and academia. Nobody (outside of the handful of companies who would most benefit) seems to want this, but the alternatives that have been presented are uninspiring: the IndieWeb, the Fediverse, even alternatives to the Web itself, like Gemini protocol. What these all have in common is a dependence on unpaid labor: websites created and administered in users’ free time, using “free software,” moderated by volunteers, running on hardware bought at the administrators’ personal expense. Typically there will be some means for users to donate money to pay for the upkeep, but the admins are lucky to break even. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with people donating their own time and money to make a corner of the Internet they enjoy, but I don’t think it’s great that our only choices are content made by companies who want to extract value by any means necessary, and content made by people with enough free time and disposable income to build things without compensation.

It would be great if there were a publicly funded tier of the Internet (apart from the websites associated with government institutions and government-funded academic institutions). We could fund it with a modest tax on commercial websites, and use it to create ad-free alternatives to web hosting, social media, and streaming services. People would actually get paid to moderate them (and not the pittance the tech giants shell out to their moderation serfs in the developing world). It would give a voice to non-affluent people without requiring them to “monetize” everything or become corporate-backed “influencers”. The Internet might actually be good again.

Of course, this is almost impossible under the current political climate of the United States. Maybe something like it already exists in other countries? I’d look it up, but for some reason, Google search results are terrible these days.

  1. In those very early days, it was relatively rare to actually buy things on the Internet, before secure protocols were developed and companies like PayPal made it easier to exchange money online. I still remember when you would bid on items on eBay and then mail a paper check to the seller. ↩︎

  2. I know everyone (including me) complains about how bad Google Search is these days, and I’ve dabbled in Bing and DuckDuckGo and Mojeek and all of those, but I’ve found that, as bad as it is, Google still is more likely than the others to return results I can actually use. (Plus I think a lot of the decline in search result quality is a result of changes in the Internet itself, such as the movement of content into “walled gardens” like Facebook, the growth of SEO techniques for gaming search results, and the fact that Kids These Days just don’t make websites like they used to back in my day.) ↩︎

Last modified on 2024-03-12